Rally New Zealand: Ford preview

New Ford Focus rally car ready for debut in New Zealand. Ford Rallye Sport's new state-of-the-art Focus RS World Rally Car will make its eagerly-awaited competition debut on the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship in New Zealand...

New Ford Focus rally car ready for debut in New Zealand.

Ford Rallye Sport's new state-of-the-art Focus RS World Rally Car will make its eagerly-awaited competition debut on the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship in New Zealand later this month. The new Focus RS, to be driven by regular pairings Markko Märtin and co-driver Michael Park and François Duval and Stéphane Prévot, is radically different in both looks and mechanics to the car which competed on the opening three rounds of the series.

Technical director Christian Loriaux and his team at M-Sport have worked closely with Ford engineers to add significant performance improvements to the most dependable and reliable car in the championship and a stunning new aerodynamic package gives the Focus RS an eye-catching contemporary look.

It is fitting that what has been described as the most technically advanced and revolutionary rally car ever built will be seen in action for the first time on the fast and flowing gravel roads of the Rally New Zealand (10 - 13 April) which competitors universally agree to be the best in the championship. The smooth tracks wind their way through lush green North Island countryside around Auckland, posing fewer mechanical demands than most gravel rallies and inviting drivers to attack them.

The new car completed rigorous eligibility checks at the team's Dovenby Hall base in England by technical inspectors from the FIA (the sport's governing body) who completed the necessary paperwork on April 1 to give the car the final go-ahead to compete in New Zealand.

Among the improvements to the new Focus RS are:

* Radical changes to styling and aerodynamic package to increase performance on faster rallies

* New rear suspension system

* Improved weight distribution and weight savings through the car

* New body shell and a roll cage which far exceeds minimum FIA safety requirement

* New lightweight engine developed and built by Cosworth Racing with improved response, more top end power and more efficient cooling

The Focus RS has been comprehensively tested in advance of its debut and Märtin, lying fourth in the drivers' points standings, is looking forward to his first rally in the car on what will be only his second appearance in New Zealand. "Despite having only competed there once, I'm a big fan of this rally," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "The roads are fantastic to drive on, although I found the rally quite difficult last year, more tricky than I expected. But with the new car, I should have a better feel. It's important to have a well-balanced car on this rally and that's one of the key areas in which the design team has concentrated with the new Focus. But the car has improved in all areas and I'm really looking forward to driving it."

Märtin believes the new rule banning on-site testing for long-haul rallies will add an extra challenge to the event. "New Zealand is a special event and with a new car it will be quite hard to predict the correct set-up before the rally. Start position will also play a major role if the roads are dry. We start fourth and that's not so good because the roads are initially covered in loose gravel. It's slippery and there are some fast drivers lower down the order who will benefit from cleaner roads when the gravel has been swept away. But that's the way it is and we'll just try our best," he added.

If Märtin lacks experience of New Zealand, then Duval has none. The 22-year-old Belgian completed the recce in 2002 but this will be his first start. "Because recce speeds are slow compared with the rally, it is hard to get a precise feel for the stages but I think they will be great fun to drive," he said. "After such a good result in Turkey my confidence is high but I know that a repeat in New Zealand, on my first appearance there and with a new car, will be hard to achieve. My aim is firstly to finish because that will increase my experience and would be a success for the new Focus on its debut.

"For me the biggest improvement we've made with the new Focus is the stability and balance. The weight distribution feels perfect and it's easier to drive than the older car," said Duval, whose third place finish in Turkey last month was the best result of his career.

Ford Rallye Sport's third pairing of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will continue to drive a 2002-specification Focus RS for the rest of the season. The Finns are also new to the rally, their only previous experience coming last year as gravel crew to fellow countryman Toni Gardemeister.

"The stages are great," said Hirvonen. "They are a little bit like Finland, but without the jumps, and fast and flowing roads like that suit me well. There are no rocks to worry about and so it's not such a tough event for the cars. If the weather stays dry then I think the roads could be quite slippery. I was disappointed to retire so early in Turkey and that's made me even more keen to finish in New Zealand."

Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson has high hopes for the new Focus RS. "It looks sensational but obviously looks are not everything. However, we know from testing that it is quicker than the 2002 version and that gives us great confidence going into New Zealand. What everyone must be aware of is that around 80 percent of this car is new and so we must not become too concerned if we have problems in the early days. But I know that the potential is there for it to be a winner and that confidence is a tribute to all the hard work put in by Christian Loriaux, his engineering team and all the Ford people who have been involved with the car's development," said Wilson.

Team News

* Due to the ban on testing in New Zealand before the rally, Ford Rallye Sport's pre-event test was split between gravel roads in northern Spain and northern Britain.

* Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson made a winning one-off return to the driving seat last month. He drove a 2002-specification Focus RS to a comfortable victory on the Malcolm Wilson Rally, based in the Lake District forests, close to the team's headquarters at Dovenby Hall in north-western England. The one-day event was a round of Britain's BTRDA Championship and Wilson provided a winning rally debut for co-driver and 16-year-old son, Matthew.

Rally Route

This year's rally has undergone major changes to enable organisers to design a route with two rather than three different service parks. The leg based at Raglan has been scrapped and the classic stages south of the town, including the famous Whaanga Coast, will not be used. Instead, after a ceremonial start in the centre of Auckland on Thursday evening, both the opening two days will be based around a new service park at Paparoa in the Northland region, almost 150km north of the city. The second leg, the longest of the rally at 150.43km, begins with the longest special stage of the season, the 59km Parahi/Ararua. It ends with two runs under floodlights at the short super special stage at Manukau, on the edge of Auckland. The final day covers traditional territory around Te Akau and in Maramarua Forest before the finish in Manukau. Drivers face 403.34km of competition in a route of 1297.62km.


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Series WRC
Teams M-Sport